Offender Classification

V. Controversies in Offender Classification

A. Universality of Risk Assessment Tools

An ongoing topic in classification research is the question of whether risk instruments developed in one jurisdiction or for a particular correctional setting are transferrable to other offender populations or contexts. When the Wisconsin model was first developed, it was rapidly adopted by probation agencies nationwide. Yet, a close look at the impact of applying the tool on a sample of probationers in New York City found that the instrument did not predict recidivism as capably as anticipated. Six of the items failed to exhibit any correlation with outcome, including drug and alcohol use, prior convictions, and prior revocations. Efforts to reweight instrument items to produce a better prediction were only marginally productive (K. N. Wright, Clear, & Dickson, 1984). Questions of transferability continue to haunt other risk assessment tools, such as the LSI-R, as well (see, e.g., Dowdy, Lacy, & Unnithan, 2002). While researchers have made great strides in producing more universally applicable classification tools, periodic evaluation of the impact of particular instruments on an agency’s ability to successfully identify and supervise high-risk offenders is always a worthwhile endeavor.

B. Applicability across Gender

Though it is the practice of most jurisdictions in the United States to use the same classification instruments on male and female offenders, researchers disagree about the applicability of “gender-neutral” tools to female offenders. Commonly used risk assessment tools are prone to overestimate the risks posed by female offenders, whose role in violent criminal activities is frequently limited to that of accomplices to male offenders. Where females take the lead in violent activity, their crimes tend to occur within the context of long-term relationships and so do not present risks to the public. Factors such as seriousness of current offense, use of violence, and substance abuse do not predict adjustment of female offenders to custody settings, though these factors perform better for males (Brennan & Austin, 1997). Research indicates that because developmental pathways to crime are different for women, other variables better predict the behaviors of female inmates, among them, marital status, family structure of the childhood home, child abuse, and reliance on public assistance, to name a few (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2003; Hardyman & Van Voorhis, 2004).

C. Applicability to Different Cultures and Races

Ethnicity is a less well-understood variable in offender classification. On the one hand is the question of whether individual factors carry the same weight in prediction of new criminal behavior across different groups; on the other is the question of whether and to what extent assessment protocols should take culture into account to ensure a reliable and valid result. Whiteacre’s (2006) research on the LSI–R, for example, revealed that the instrument led to a higher rate of classification errors for African Americans compared with whites and Hispanics when particular cutoff scores were used. Severson and Duclos (2005) point out that in the aggregate, American Indians are less open to interviewers’ questions about mental and physical health, and use of alcohol and drugs, compared with other groups. The prominence of the narrative style in American Indian culture and its embrace of mental illness call for modification of both assessment items and protocols. Others indicate that the success of correctional practices, generally, relies on practitioners’ appreciation for the role played by proximity, paralanguage, density of language, history of discrimination, and other culture-specific variables (Umbreit & Coates, 2000).

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